State ends bid for new phone-call privacy rules
Seattle Times consumer affairs reporter
The state has decided to let stand last month's federal court opinion overturning privacy rules meant to protect sensitive "call-detail" information such as when, where and to whom a call is placed, and how long calls last.
The state had 30 days to appeal U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein's Aug. 26 ruling in favor of Verizon. The judge found the state's rules overly broad, confusing to consumers, and violated Verizon's free-speech rights to communicate with its customers.
The rules required phone companies to get permission from customers before they used call-detail information for marketing purposes. They were considered among the most restrictive in the nation.
"There was a lot of sentiment for going forward (with the appeal) because people still feel like the rule was right for consumers," said Glenn Blackmon, assistant director of telecommunications for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC), which last fall adopted the rules stricken last month.
But commission officials, as well as the state Attorney General's Office, also found things to like in Rothstein's ruling and were unwilling to risk those gains on appeal. For example, the state was pleased that Rothstein recognized that Washington has an important privacy interest in looking after the customer account records maintained by phone companies, Blackmon said.
Verizon has more than 700,000 Washington customers. In court, the company stressed that it does not share customer information with third parties. The company also said it does not care about or study the identities of people or business; rather, it focuses on phone numbers, such as area code and prefix, as well as the frequency and duration of those calls, to custom tailor its products and services.
In her ruling, Rothstein called the state's privacy rules "incomprehensible" in some respects. She also noted that they did not apply to wireless carriers, causing her to conclude that the state had failed "to establish that its rules are part of a substantial effort to advance a valid state interest."
Commission officials have noted that the Legislature has forbidden the WUTC to regulate the wireless industry. In court, the state argued that its inability to address the entire problem should not preclude it from fixing what it can.
The judge suggested that there are other means available to achieve the same purpose without affecting Verizon's protected speech rights. "For instance the state could more stringently regulate the form and content of opt-out notices and combine those regulations with educational campaigns to inform consumers of their rights."
The WUTC's Blackmon said yesterday the commission was considering taking such steps.
Yesterday, Verizon did not directly address the state's decision to let Rothstein's ruling stand. Company spokeswoman Missy Barran said Verizon would continue to follow Federal Communications Commission privacy rules, which she called stringent.
Expressing dismay at the state's decision not to appeal was Robert Pregulman, executive director of WashPIRG, a consumer advocacy group.
"We are extremely disappointed that it has decided not to appeal Judge Rothstein's decision," he said yesterday. "We believe that the proposed rules were well within the FCC guidelines, and they would have set an important precedent."
Pregulman added that Verizon would be mistaken "if it thinks that winning this lawsuit means that this fight is over. As consumers become increasingly concerned about protecting their privacy, there will be increasing pressure on our lawmakers and regulatory agencies to enact policies to give people the right to determine whether or not they will allow companies to buy and sell their private information."
Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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